Photojournalist recalls path from JP to Iraq and beyond

October 26, 2012
By

A photojournalist who got his start in the pages of the Gazette before covering such global hotspots as Afghanistan and Kosovo has published a hard-hitting memoir called “All the Kennedys Are Dead.”

Darren McCollester lived in Jamaica Plain for nearly 20 years before moving to Winthrop a couple of months ago. His book is built around his 2006 attempt to travel from JP to the struggling nation of Chad, yet another of his shoestring-budget adventures to document humanitarian crisis.

“I hate to say this out loud, but we would probably do this for free,” McCollester said in a Gazette interview last week. “It’s not a job. It’s a whole lifestyle. Photojournalists are probably the most crazy, driven people I’ve been around.”

His book, published last month, skips around freely in time to describe his career path from waiting tables at Casablanca in Cambridge to shooting major events for such clients as Getty Images, with his photos appearing places like the New York Times and CBS News.

His memories are sometimes shocking in the graphic violence he has witnessed. Other times, they are humorous, as when a drunk hotel guest tried to seduce him as he photographed a U.S. senator.

McCollester also delves into the media economics that make some crises more equal than others. He describes covering the war in Afghanistan during the build-up to the pending Iraq War, when he meets famed television journalist Geraldo Rivera and his crew, old friends from a prior assignment in Israel and the West Bank.

“Seeing them makes me feel better, like I’m not the last guy left in Afghanistan while everyone else is in Iraq,” McCollester writes in the book. “That war hasn’t even started but the feel here is this one is already forgotten.”

Soon enough, he was off to cover Iraq, too, on a military embedding so jerry-rigged that when asked how he would get back home, his only answer was, “I don’t know and it doesn’t matter.”

The memoir touches on other shoots as well, including his documenting of lead-poisoned Roma refugee camps in Kosovo and a trip to Juarez, Mexico, a city so torn by drug cartel violence that he covered 10 murders in his first night there.

JP gets several mentions in the book, but it does not tell the story of how McCollester’s career began at the Gazette. After being kicked out England in 1992—an incident recounted in the book—he ended up crashing at an illicit Northeastern University frat house on Greenough Avenue. That taste of JP convinced him to eventually sink roots here, with his home on Eliot Street in Pondside until earlier this year.

“I left JP, but my heart’s still over there,” he said. “I love that place.”

In 1993, McCollester bought a camera with no idea how to use it, but with a dream of doing photojournalism. The first shot he attempted to sell was of a fallen tree at Triple D’s, now the Canary Square restaurant, which he pitched to the Gazette. He remembers sitting in a café and flipping slowly through the next issue to see if his photo was published.

“They didn’t run it and I was crushed,” he said.

Walking back to his apartment, he said, he was depressed and seriously considering joining the Army in the hopes it might teach him photography. Suddenly, explosions and shattered glass erupted around him. It was Centre Street manhole covers blowing 20 feet into the air from electrical transformer failures.

McCollester took some shots of firefighters around the smoldering holes, one of which ran on the front page of the next Gazette. He recalls then-Editor Sandra Storey telling him, “Maybe you were born to be a photojournalist.”

“I still think community journalism is more important than big-time journalism,” he said, because the reporters live in the places they cover and know them up-close. He also credits community journalism with sharpening his skills because of its challenge of shooting neighborhood events that are not perfectly staged by public relations professionals.

His book explores the changing definition of photojournalism in a time of giant corporations taking over the mass media, and the devaluing of photos in the era of cell phone cameras and the Internet. The title comes from an editor’s cynical advice to him that the Northeast’s political scene is no longer worth covering and that he instead should become a celebrity-photo paparazzi in Los Angeles.

“It’s become less quality and more quantity,” he said of the photojournalism business. But, he added, it is still “a very powerful thing to able to take a photo and have it move around the world in a second.”

He began the book as a possible farewell to journalism, and many of his shoots today are commercial, for such clients as Boston Children’s Hospital. Such steady work has, so far, kept him from following the lure of such world events as the Arab Spring.

But he continues to work as a journalist—he photographed President Obama in New Hampshire the day before speaking to the Gazette—and there is a sense that it is just a matter of time before he heads off to another far corner of the globe with a camera bag and an urge to make a difference.

“I’ve always explained photojournalism as that woman who drives me crazy and I would do anything for,” McCollester said. “She’s going to leave me for somebody else, but I can’t give her up.”

“All the Kennedys Are Dead” is available on Amazon.com. For more about McCollester’s work, see darrenmcollester.com.